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40% of America's trucking capacity is left on the table every day, MIT expert tells Congress

By Victor Reklaitis

Testimony at Capitol Hill hearing comes as new infrastructure law delivers apprenticeship program and other provisions for trucking industry

American long-haul truck drivers are "seriously underutilized," and the problem comes from the scheduling practices of shippers and receivers, an expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday.

"This chronic underutilization problem does not seem to be a function of what the drivers themselves do or don't do, but rather an unfortunate consequence of our conventions for scheduling and processing the pickup and delivery appointments," said David Correll, a research scientist at MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics, as he testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Long-haul, full-truckload drivers spend an average of 6.5 hours every workday driving ,even though federal safety regulations let them drive for 11 hours a day, Correll said.

"This, of course, implies that 40% of America's trucking capacity is left on the table every day. This is, of course, especially troubling during times of perceived shortage and crisis, like we find ourselves now," he told the House panel. Adding just 18 minutes of driving time to every existing truck driver's day "could be enough to overcome what many of us feel is a driver shortage," the MIT expert said.

Americans are dealing with a range of shortages and inflation as the U.S. economy snaps back from shutdowns tied to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. One main weak link in supply chains right now is the trucking industry, as MarketWatch has reported.

See:How trucking became the weak link in America's supply chain

"Our existing warehouses and distribution centers do show the capacity to get trucks loaded and unloaded relatively quickly, but they do so only from around 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays, which represents one-third or less of every working day." Correll said. "I submit to this committee that America's current supply-chain problems are simply too big to commit only one-third of our weekdays to our best efforts at unclogging them."

The $1 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Joe Biden signed into law on Monday features provisions aimed at truckers, such as an apprenticeship pilot program that opens the door to drivers aged 18 to 20 . That program comes from compromises after a trade group representing drivers -- the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, or OIIDA -- opposed fully opening up licensing to teen drivers.

The American Trucking Associations, or ATA, which lobbies for carriers and other players in the trucking industry, praised the apprenticeship program on Wednesday.

"Apprenticeships that train younger talent to safely and responsibly operate this equipment will help thanks to the language from the bipartisan Drive Safe Act included in the IIJA, but we need to do more," said Chris Spear, the ATA's CEO and president, as he testified before the House panel.

The ATA has said there is a shortage of truck drivers, with 80,000 needed at the moment, and Spear said his trade group's "annually reported numbers are sound and accurate." The OOIDA has said there isn't a shortage, maintaining the problem is retaining drivers, as many people don't find the compensation sufficient for the long hours and weeks away from home.

Other provisions in the infrastructure (PAVE) law aimed at truckers include the establishment of an advisory board that would encourage women to pursue trucking careers, as well as a requirement for automatic emergency braking systems for new trucks in two years. But the OOIDA has criticized the measure for not funding projects for truck parking, saying that's the "biggest safety need" for truckers.

Trucking stocks are showing some big gains in the year to date, while the broad S&P 500 index is up 25%. J.B. Hunt Transport Services (JBHT) is up 46%, Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL) has climbed 85%, and Knight-Swift Transportation (KNX) has advanced 40%. Landstar System (LSTR) is higher by 31%, and Schneider National (SNDR) has tacked on 24%.

This report was first published on Nov. 17, 2021.

-Victor Reklaitis

 

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11-18-21 0900ET

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